Review: Mama Goema Celebrates a Musical History


A word synonymous with Cape Town and its annual minstrel carnival, Goema is derived from the beat played on the Goema drum and many would say it is to Cape Town what Samba is to Brazil. The Goema beat is  influenced both by the Khoi and the slaves from South Asia and Africa, both of whom had influence on Cape Town in the past.  It also bears a similarity to a beat found in Kerala in southern India, though Goema has a distinct African texture.

The documentary Mama Goema: The Cape Town Beat in Five Movements which screened recently at the Tri Continental Film Festival, endeavours to tell the story of Goema in an all-inclusive narrative which posits the sound as a product of the Cape Town potjie, a brew as old as Cape Town itself.

What is made clear from the outset is that the potjie is constantly being stirred, with new flavours added as the city evolves. The Carnival is without doubt the oldest and most recognizable manifestation with its roots in the history of slavery and colonialism in the Cape. The film however is directed more toward more recent mutations including the Cape Jazz avant-garde led by the eminent pianist Kyle Shepherd and the orchestral experimentation of “Goema Captain” Mac McKenzie.

The film is divided into five chapters with mini-narratives that are both visually and thematically strong. A host of music commentators including Neo Muyanga and Ian Harris enrich the theorising of Goema as both a traditional beat and an evolving form. Songstress Ernestine Deane even claims to be “living a Goema life”.

The highlight of the film comes with the nod to The Genuines, a little known 80’s Goema-rock band started by Mac McKenzie and Hilton Schilder who used the platform of rock music to push political agendas during the height of Apartheid. Their driving track ‘Struggle’ is a prime example of how rock helped the Goema beat to infiltrate the mainstream.

Yet where is Goema today? The inroads made by The Genuines and a generation of musicians such Robbie Jansen and Abdullah Ibrahim have not translated into the growth of appreciative audiences as might have been expected. Unlike the music of Sergio Mendes and Tom Jobim which established Samba and Bossa Nova as quintessential Brazillian sounds, there is no consensus of Goema being the sound of Cape Town.

Yet there is still a strong following. The Q&A discussion following the screening of the film was dominated by none other than Mac Mckenzie and resembled a strategic planning session as the audience engaged ideas on how to promote Goema beyond the documentary. Conceding that it is still a grass-roots movement, directors Angela Ramirez, Calum MacNaughton and Sara Gouveia described the need to develop a Goema lexicon – a way of speaking about this music which fosters acceptance. That Goema stalwart McKenzie was handing out flyers for his next gig is a testament to how far this story still needs to go.

What Mama Goema confirms are the vast kists of knowledge which are yet to be properly unpacked and acknowledged in South Africa. As much as Mama Goema is a celebration it is also a reminder of a musical knowledge that has been alienated from the various communities who have influenced it. The film is therefore also an important historical document and a must see for all who call this beautiful city home.

Justin Davy


Mama Goema can be seen during the Tri-Continental Film Festival at the Cinema Nouveau in the Waterfront, 16 – 23 September.

Leave A Comment